TMQ: Talking Hockey East’s new commish, Atlantic Hockey mystique, sleepers for NCAA tourney

Blake Christensen (18 - AIC) (2018 Omar Phillips)
Blake Christensen leads American International in scoring this season, posting 10 goals and 26 points in 30 games (photo: Omar Phillips).

Each week during the season, we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Jim: First off, welcome back to Dan Rubin, who is filling in for Paula Weston this week.

I know you will do an admirable job.

Before we get into the hockey that was played this weekend, there was some news that came out of Hockey East Monday morning that Steve Metcalf will become the fifth commissioner in league history, taking over for 23-year Hockey East veteran commissioner Joe Bertagna at the end of this season. Steve has been the deputy athletic director at New Hampshire for a number of years and, in more recent time, has served on the NCAA Men’s Division I Ice Hockey committee, last year and this holding the position of committee chair.

I’ve known Steve for a long time and certainly wish him luck in his endeavor in this new position. He is strong in operations and management, having handled those tasks on a day-to-day basis at UNH. So we can rest assured the Hockey East tournament will continue to be an elite event in college hockey. What will be interesting to see is how he handles the marketing of the league, something that going back to last summer when the directors accounted they would not be retaining Bertanga pointed to as a major need for the league.

I will certainly allow for a lot of time to pass before passing judgment on Steve. But one has to imagine that the 11 athletic directors (12 if you include Holy Cross on the women’s side) will be watching very carefully as they, and only they, seem to understand what direction that want to see this conference move in the future.

Dan: Glad to be riding side saddle again for this week, especially coming on the heels of Monday’s announcement of a new commissioner.

I don’t have the history or the relationship with Steve, but I had an opportunity to talk to him last year after the NCAA tournament announced its field. I remember him being both friendly and knowledgeable, and for our sake, he was very honest about the process and what went on inside the selection room for regionals.

I met him out in Buffalo as part of the Frozen Four, and I agree that he’s a solid candidate and person for the operations and management of Hockey East. I’m also excited for Hockey East to bring in a person who has an extensively unique perspective from outside the core geography in the Greater Boston area…and I’m from Boston.

I wholly believe that Steve will provide the right injection at the right time after Joe Bertagna fully leaves the league office. I think Joe takes criticism for the league’s marketing efforts – some of it due and some it unjust. He is responsible for unprecedented growth within the league and made key in-roads in how Hockey East looks today.

It’s not accidental to see schools like Merrimack, UMass Lowell, UMass and others enjoy top runs within the league, and all of that happened under his watch. I don’t view the Notre Dame move with the same skepticism others do, and I think, at the time, it was the right move for the league in the right circumstances. UConn is arguably a Hockey East school now, not an Atlantic Hockey school moving into the league. The growth of Northeastern hockey is unprecedented.

How Hockey East moves into the future is going to be on Steve’s shoulders, and I’m interested to see how he addresses it in the near and far future. I’m not sure what the next frontier is, but you’re right in reserving judgment until we figure out what happens from here. At a surface glance, it looks like a good, solid hire for a good, solid league.

Jim: Those are words that echo what I would write about the future of Hockey East. It’s certainly a wait-and-see, but I feel good about the direction.

On the ice, this was another great weekend of games. Not a lot of upsets, for the most part, but I will point out one in the league you cover the most – Atlantic Hockey. Sacred Heart whitewashed Niagara 6-0 on Saturday, seemingly keeping the Pioneers in position to make a run at AIC for the league title. But in Sunday’s rematch, Niagara got the last laugh with a 6-1 victory.

I never have been able to explain much of what happens in Atlantic Hockey, but this one really left me scratching my head. Hat’s off to Jason Lammers and his Purple Eagles for not just responding to a lop-sided loss, but for doing so in a statement-making fashion.

Obviously, this really puts Sacred Heart in a less-than-desirable position when it comes to winning Atlantic Hockey. AIC is in the cat bird’s seat and could clinch at least a share of the regular-season crown with a sweep of Holy Cross this weekend. If they don’t sweep, sure, things could be different if Sacred Heart wins the single remaining matchup with AIC a week from Wednesday. But you have to think this championship isn’t to be for Sacred Heart and it is time to focus on the postseason, no?

Dan: I would normally say yes, but Atlantic Hockey is in one of the most unique positions in college hockey.

First, let’s start with Niagara. Yes, the team is under .500, but wins are coming in bunches, and the Sacred Heart series came on the heels of a sweep of Mercyhurst. Niagara was the preseason No. 2 team in the league, behind only AIC (more on that in a second), which is a vote of confidence from the rest of the league. There’s something to be said about the parity in Atlantic Hockey and that the preseason rankings don’t mean much of anything, but I was bullish at the start of the season on the Purple Eagles as my preseason choice to win the league. At some point, they weren’t exactly going to sit back and just keep losing games without forcing a run at a home series – or a first-round bye – in some capacity.

Second, AIC is officially a buzzsaw again. The Yellow Jackets haven’t lost a league game since January 3 and only have one other loss – to Providence – in the second half of the year. So a loss to that team doesn’t have much shame in it, whatsoever.

But Sacred Heart, with games against Army West Point and AIC, can still upend the entire structure of everything. Last week was a regression to the norm for a team that’s done it time and again this year, and I don’t think losing is the worst thing in the world. I don’t know if it can catch AIC, but I wouldn’t count the Pioneers out, quite yet, especially in Atlantic Hockey, where teams will never pack it in out of sheer necessity to keep peaking into the postseason.

While the race at the top of the league is one thing, I tend to focus more on sleeper teams and teams at the bottom of the league. That cycles me back to Niagara and Bentley.

Bentley lost both games at RIT, deeply damaging its chances at a first-round bye. Fifth place is still an outside possibility, which I realize isn’t the “bottom of the league,” but any of the roads could lead to the Falcons having a good shot at advancing. If they finish sixth, Bentley could still host Mercyhurst and gain a road series at Army West Point in the second round against a team they historically play very well against.

If they somehow manage to finish fifth, which would take some creativity in the way the next two weekends play out, they could return to RIT, where the Falcons were 6-0 before losing this weekend. The only matchup that I don’t necessarily love is if they lose and wind up playing either Niagara or Canisius in the first round – largely because Niagara is still a very good team and Canisius had a stretch of good hockey where it rallied for two shootout/3-on-3 victories on the road in Massachusetts.

Who are some other teams for you that are sleeping and could really burst the NCAA bubble in the Pairwise by advancing?

Jim: The team I keep watching is Bemidji State.

The Beavers are coming off a series where they manhandled a very good Northern Michigan team on the road, winning 5-0 and 5-1. They do have to make the long trip to Anchorage this weekend, but two wins there could have them in position to make the final weekend of the season quite consequential in the PairWise.

That weekend series is at home against Minnesota State. There is still a very slight chance that a sweep could propel the Beavers to a conference title, but that’s not likely as the Mavericks need just two points out of six this weekend to clinch the league title.

But if Bemidji State could take a game or, even better, two from Minnesota State on the final weekend of the season, they could sew up a their first NCAA bid since 2009-10, when the Beavers qualified for the NCAA tournament as a member of now-defunct College Hockey America. That would be a quite a story for Tom Serratore and his club.

How about you? Give me a bubble team that you think could make the tournament because of their recent play.

Dan: I’m focusing on two old friends from Hockey East: Boston University and Maine.

BU made the tournament over four consecutive seasons from 2015-2018 but didn’t advance to the Frozen Four after coming up short in the national championship game against Providence. The Terriers have been red hot in the second half of the season and could very easily win the Hockey East regular-season championship – which is what we could say about a half dozen teams, if not more, at this point.

Beyond BU, I really like Maine. The Black Bears have been virtually unbeatable since Christmas and won games in tough situations. The consecutive overtime wins at Boston College in overtime, the win over Northeastern, the avoidance of a total letdown against UConn by rallying in overtime to win that 1-0 game after dropping a 3-2… I just really, really like the Black Bears. Plus, their last two weekends involve two games at home against Vermont, which is a big deal considering how points are at a premium.

Maine is 14th in the Pairwise, which means they aren’t going to break the bubble by advancing (at least not like BU would), but they have something brewing. Jeremy Swayman is second in the league in save percentage, and they have depth scoring beyond Tim Doherty and Eduards Tralmaks. Mitchell Fossier is well over a point per game guy.

I had some concerns about the defense in the first half of the year, namely in that Northeastern series, and the sweep loss against UMass gave me some bad karma about the team since they can’t avenge it. But the Black Bears have been very good and could force someone to go to Orono before the Garden – which may get them in with room to spare.